Inmate escapes: How Tri-Cities law enforcement are cracking down

News Channel 11 found nearly three dozen inmates have escaped or attempted to escape in our region over the last five years, including walking off from work details, escaping from police custody and breaking out of jail.

TRI-CITIES, TN (WJHL)- A week after a Carter County inmate walked-off a work detail News Channel 11 took a deeper look at inmates who have escaped in the Tri-Cities region. We found nearly three dozen inmates escaped or attempted to escape in our region over the last five years, including walking off from work details, escaping from police custody and breaking out of jail.

In August 2016, two Hawkins County inmates — Derek Short and Timothy Rose — were able to scale the 15-foot recreation yard fence and disappear into the woods.

Hawkins County Sheriff Ronnie Lawson said, “As the inmates were returning back inside the facility one of the inmates kind of held the door where it didn’t shut in behind all of them. As the correctional officer’s standing there, a couple other inmates stepped in-between him and the door where they couldn’t see these two inmates [who then] went out the door. It was all well-planned [and] orchestrated by the inmates.”

Hours later, alleged bank robber Timothy England escaped from the Washington County Detention Center. Court records show he left the shower area overnight, got into the recreation yard and used a rope made of bedsheets to scale the wall.

“We take pride in the past 21 years that this facility’s been in operation, there has not been an escape. It concerned us deeply when we had our first escape in 21 years this past August,” Washington County Detention Center Administrator Maj. Brenda Downes said.

Downes said several factors contributed to England’s escape, including deteriorating building conditions and human error.

“It would have been a lot more difficult if we were properly staffed and had more senior officers,” Downes said.

It took dozens of law enforcement officers several days to catch all three inmates.

Downes said she was on edge the entire time England was on the lam.

“Worried. God forbid he were to hurt someone while he was out there,” Downes said.

Downes said after England’s escape the Washington County Sheriff’s Department conducted an internal review and made security improvements based on the results.

Citing security concerns, she did not go into specifics but said the U.S. Marshal’s Service did a walk-through and felt comfortable enough with the changes that England, who was transferred to a different facility after being recaptured in September, was briefly housed at the Washington County jail in December.

Hawkins County Sheriff Ronnie Lawson said his department also made immediate changes after Short and Rose were recaptured.

“I dare say that won’t happen again,” Lawson said. “Now when the inmates go out and when they come back in there’s two correctional officers instead of one.”

Lawson said his department has also added extra security cameras in the recreation area and razor wire on the fence.

The majority of recent inmate escapes in our region are from inmates walking off work details.

News Channel 11 reached out to law enforcement agencies across the region and discovered nearly 20 inmates walked-off work details from 2012-2016.

The Greene County Sheriff’s Department averages one work detail walk-off every year.

“It doesn’t happen that often, but it does happen,” Greene County Jail Administrator Roger Willett said.

Willett said 60 inmates are in the community on a daily basis doing a variety of jobs, including caring for shelter animals, picking up trash on the roadway and handing out food.

“This gives them a sense of worth. It gives them a sense of responsibility. It puts them with a person that will show them how to work and work correctly and hope that makes the person more viable when they get out of jail,” Willett said. “Our ultimate goal is to get people out of jail and keep them out of jail.”

Only non-violent offenders can be put on work details according to Willett and he said inmates must go through a rigorous process.

“We look at their past incarcerations. We look at where they live and we try to select individuals we think would be trustworthy enough to put into the community,” Willett said. “We look at his behavior while he’s in jail. We give him a thorough drug test … to make sure they’re drug free.”

Inmates are not supervised by Greene County Sheriff’s deputies on work details. Instead, it is a person who has undergone mandatory training through the Tennessee Corrections Institute.

Willett said, “They learn inmate behavior. They learn to identify an inmate that might be going through a crisis to see if they can see a change in their behavior to tip them off that maybe something’s going on with this inmate.”

He admits there is a chance for walk-offs, but said the department does not encourage work detail supervisors to stop an inmate who walks-off.

“The main thing is safety,” Willett said. “We want those individuals to be safe. We want our inmates to be safe. I would love to have a certified officer out with every crew [but] this county’s just not in a position at this time to afford that.”

Willett said when an inmate walks off the sheriff’s department makes it a top priority to find them and most of the time inmates they are found in the county.

“There are instances where they may get bad information from home, they may get the sentence [they don’t want] or they just get home sick or lonely and want to go back to their families,” Willett said.

In Greene County, an inmate who walks off a work detail will have to wait a decade before they could be considered for another work detail.

Willett said inmates who escape from jail are never allowed to work in the community again.

Copyright 2017 WJHL. All rights reserved.

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